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Anderson County v. Preston

Court of Appeals of South Carolina

May 31, 2017

Anderson County, Appellant,
Joey Preston and the South Carolina Retirement System, Respondents. Appellate Case No. 2013-002499

          Heard June 11, 2015

         Appeal From Anderson County Roger L. Couch, Circuit Court Judge

          James Theodore Gentry, Troy A. Tessier, and Wade Stackhouse Kolb, III, of Greenville, and Alice Witherspoon Parham Casey, of Columbia, all of Wyche Law Firm, for Appellant.

          Candy M. Kern-Fuller, of Upstate Law Group, LLC, of Easley, and Lane Whittaker Davis, of Nelson Mullins Riley & Scarborough, LLP, of Greenville, for Respondent Joey Preston.

          Justin Richard Werner, of Columbia, for Respondent South Carolina Retirement System.

          WILLIAMS, J.

         On November 18, 2008, the Anderson County Council (the 2008 Council) voted to approve a severance agreement (the Severance Agreement) for outgoing county administrator Joey Preston. Anderson County (the County) filed the instant action against Preston seeking rescission of that agreement. Following a nonjury trial, the circuit court entered judgment in favor of Preston on all causes of action as well as his counterclaim against the County. The County appeals the circuit court's decision, raising numerous issues on appeal. We affirm in part, reverse in part, and remand for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.


         Prior to the vote on Preston's Severance Agreement, the political environment in Anderson County was "toxic."[1] Throughout his tenure, Preston was involved in constant litigation-both individually and in his capacity as county administrator- with members of the council he served.

         The 2008 Council was comprised of Chairman Michael Thompson and Council members Larry Greer, Ron Wilson, Gracie Floyd, Robert Waldrep, Cindy Wilson, and Bill McAbee. In June 2008, primary challengers ousted three incumbent members of the 2008 Council: Tommy Dunn defeated Thompson, Tom Allen defeated McAbee, and Eddie Moore defeated Greer. Some of the primary victors, as well as Waldrep and Cindy Wilson, ran on platforms calling for examination into and possible reform of the financial and governance practices of the Preston administration.

         From June to December 2008, Waldrep and Cindy Wilson held a series of meetings with Moore, Dunn, and Allen at Waldrep's office. During these meetings, the participants laid out an agenda for the incoming Council (the 2009 Council) that included firing the law firm for the County and hiring a new one; hiring a financial investigator or auditor; designating Moore as chairman; drafting resolutions for the first meeting; implementing a hiring freeze; and addressing the position of county administrator and various other personnel matters.

         After the primary elections, Preston retained Robert Hoskins as his attorney. On September 25, 2008, Hoskins notified the 2008 Council of Preston's anticipatory breach of contract claim, stating the following:

[I]t has come to Mr. Preston's attention that certain existing Council members have made statements that they and certain newly elected Council Members intend, after January 2009, to prevent him from carrying out his duties as County Administrator. . . . Preston considers the intent of certain members of Council and their allies to prevent him from performing his job as an anticipatory breach of his employment contract. . . . [T]he political and personal agenda of the obstructionists has rendered his ability to serve the people of Anderson County beyond January 1, 2009 impossible.

         In response, the 2008 Council referred Preston's claim to its personnel committee-chaired by Ron Wilson-and hired Tom Bright, an employment attorney, to advise the County on the matter. Bright then interviewed all seven members of the 2008 Council, as well as the county attorney, to receive their input.

         On October 23, 2008, Preston's attorney delivered a letter to Bright, in which he alluded to a number of causes of action and tort claims Preston planned to assert against current and incoming Council members. In the letter, however, he offered to settle Preston's anticipatory breach claim and "all claims against the County and the two individual Council [m]embers [he] previously mentioned." Under this proposed settlement, Preston would resign and execute a complete release of all claims against the County, Waldrep, and Cindy Wilson in exchange for the County paying $1, 276, 081 in damages: $827, 222 for the total amount of pay and benefits due under his employment agreement[2] (the Employment Agreement); $356, 087 to the South Carolina Retirement System (SCRS) to purchase seven years, seven months, and twenty-three days of service credits to allow him to retire immediately with a full pension; and $92, 772 to his health reimbursement account for retiree health benefits.

         After receiving the letter, Bright met with the personnel committee to discuss how the County should address the matter. In his notes outlining Preston's claims and the County's options, Bright stated Preston had no anticipatory breach or constructive discharge claim. Bright also advised the committee that, under our supreme court's ruling in Piedmont Public Service District v. Cowart (Cowart II), 324 S.C. 239, 478 S.E.2d 836 (1996), the County had a good argument that Preston's Employment Agreement was voidable-and therefore, had no value- because it purported to extend his employment beyond the term of the Council that approved it. Nevertheless, Bright also told the committee if the County were to lose, then it could face up to $2 million in litigation costs going forward. Thus, Bright advised the 2008 Council it could (1) do nothing, (2) leave the issue for the 2009 Council to decide, (3) terminate Preston and pay him nothing, or (4) settle with Preston and pay out his contract. As to the fourth option, Bright cautioned that "[c]itizens may go after Preston and former Council members for giving away their [money] without good reason" if the 2008 Council chose to settle. After considering the options, the personnel committee directed Bright "to go and talk to Mr. Hoskins and try and get the best deal you can."

         Following several weeks of negotiations, Bright emailed Hoskins a copy of a proposed severance agreement and release of all claims on November 18, 2008. That evening, the 2008 Council voted to amend the agenda to consider the Severance Agreement, voted for its approval, voted to approve budget transfers to fund it, and then voted to reapprove it on reconsideration. The 2008 Council approved the Severance Agreement, and the budget transfers to fund it, by a 5-2 vote. After the votes, the 2008 Council voted to hire Michael Cunningham as the new county administrator and adjourned without conducting any further business.

         Pursuant to the terms of the Severance Agreement, Preston agreed to resign as county administrator on November 30, 2008, and release all claims against the County and any of its Council members regarding his employment. In exchange, Preston received $1, 139, 833-less state and federal withholdings-from the County. The County also contributed $359, 258 to the SCRS "to pay for retirement service credits, " paid Preston $780, 575 "in the form of a severance benefit, " and gave Preston title to the 2006 GMC Yukon he was using as a County vehicle.

         The newly constituted 2009 Council held its first meeting on January 6, 2009, during which it voted to hire a new law firm and a financial investigator to review Cunningham's employment contract, investigate the manner in which he was hired, and review the actions taken by the 2008 Council on November 18, 2008.[3]

         Thereafter, the County sued Preston, alleging causes of action for (1) violation of the State Ethics Act, [4] section 2-37(g) of the Anderson County Code of Ordinances (the County Code), and the common law; (2) violation of public policy; (3) breach of fiduciary duty; (4) fraud; (5) constructive fraud; (6) negligent misrepresentation; (7) capriciousness, unreasonableness, and fraud; (8) fundamental and substantial breach of the Severance Agreement; (9) breach of fiduciary duties relating to backdated documents; (10) constructive trust; and (11) unjust enrichment. The County later amended its complaint to include additional factual allegations. Preston filed his answer to the amended complaint, asserting counterclaims against the County and SCRS.[5] The County then filed a reply to Preston's counterclaims.

         On December 12, 2011, the case was designated as complex and assigned for all purposes to the Honorable Roger L. Couch. After hearing arguments, the circuit court denied the parties' cross-motions for summary judgment in all respects on October 23, 2012. As to Preston and the County, the court found summary judgment was inappropriate because genuine issues of material fact existed regarding the claims and counterclaims asserted. The matter was tried without a jury from October 29, 2012, to November 5, 2012. In its May 3, 2013 order (the Final Order), the court granted judgment in favor of Preston on all causes of action as well as his counterclaim against the County.

         In the Final Order, the circuit court disqualified four 2008 Council members for improperly participating in the votes approving the Severance Agreement. The court found Thompson voted in violation of section 2-37(g)(4)(e) of the County Code because he was seeking future employment from the County through Preston at the time of the vote. The court likewise found Ron Wilson's vote violated subsections 2-37(g)(4)(a) and (e) because Ron Wilson's daughter had recently received a substantial financial benefit from Preston after he extended her personal services contract with the County. Although Waldrep and Cindy Wilson voted against the Severance Agreement, the court found their votes violated section 2-37(g) because both had a "financial interest greater than that of the general Anderson County public" and their participation created "a substantial appearance of impropriety." Given that "Preston agreed not to pursue any further claims against any County Council member, " the court found Waldrep and Cindy Wilson "had a direct economic interest"-regardless of the vote's outcome-and should not have participated while he maintained a lawsuit against them individually.

         After disqualifying four of the seven members, the court-relying upon Baird v. Charleston County, 333 S.C. 519, 511 S.E.2d 69 (1999), and section 2-37(g)(3) of the County Code-nevertheless found "a majority of those present and properly voting approved Preston's Severance Agreement." The court also held, inter alia, (1) public policy neither rendered the Severance Agreement nor the vote adopting it void; (2) Preston did not breach a fiduciary duty because he owed no duty to disclose Council members' personal conflicts of interest; (3) the County failed to prove its claims for fraud, constructive fraud, and negligent misrepresentation; (4) the 2008 Council's approval of the Severance Agreement was neither unreasonable or capricious nor was it a product of fraud and abuse of power; (5) the County's constructive trust claim no longer remained viable; (6) rescission was unavailable as a remedy; (7) the County had unclean hands; (8) adequate remedies at law barred the County from invoking the court's equitable jurisdiction; (9) the County breached the covenant not to sue in the Severance Agreement by bringing this lawsuit; and (10) the issue concerning the award of attorney's fees should be held in abeyance pending the final disposition and the filing of a petition.

         In light of the circuit court's Final Order, the County filed a motion to alter or amend the judgment as well as a motion to amend its complaint. Preston filed an answer, and the County submitted a reply. Richard Freemantle, a third party, filed a post-trial motion to intervene. The circuit court, however, denied all of the parties' post-trial motions in an order (the Post-Trial Order) dated November 8, 2013. This appeal followed.


         I. Did the circuit court err in concluding Preston owed no fiduciary duty to inform the County of improper votes and finding his conduct did not constitute fraud, constructive fraud, or negligent misrepresentation?

         II. Did the circuit court err in finding a single tainted vote did not require invalidation of the Severance Agreement's approval or mandate its rescission?

         III. Did the circuit court err in refusing to invalidate the 2008 Council's approval of the Severance Agreement based upon the absence of a quorum?

         IV. Did the circuit court err in holding future payments from SCRS to Preston were not available in fashioning a remedy?

         V. Did the circuit court err in holding rescission was an unavailable remedy? VI. Did the circuit court err in finding the County acted with unclean hands?

         VII. Did the circuit court err in concluding the County could not invoke its equitable powers because an adequate remedy at law existed?

         VIII. Did the circuit court err in holding the County breached the terms of the Severance Agreement by bringing the instant lawsuit?


         Because the County's main purpose in bringing the instant lawsuit was to rescind the Severance Agreement, this action is equitable in nature. See ZAN, LLC v. Ripley Cove, LLC, 406 S.C. 404, 412, 751 S.E.2d 664, 669 (Ct. App. 2013) (per curiam). In an equitable action, this court reviews factual findings and legal conclusions de novo. Regions Bank v. Wingard Props., Inc., 394 S.C. 241, 248, 715 S.E.2d 348, 352 (Ct. App. 2011). "Therefore, we may find facts according to our own view of the preponderance of the evidence." Ballard v. Roberson, 399 S.C. 588, 593, 733 S.E.2d 107, 109 (2012). Moreover, we are free to decide "question[s] of law with no particular deference to the circuit court." Catawba Indian Tribe of S.C. v. State, 372 S.C. 519, 524, 642 S.E.2d 751, 753 (2007). Our de novo review, however, does not require this court to disregard the circuit court's findings or "ignore the fact that the [circuit] court is in the better position to assess the credibility of the witnesses." Ripley Cove, 406 S.C. at 412, 751 S.E.2d at 669 (quoting Nutt Corp. v. Howell Rd, LLC, 396 S.C. 323, 327, 721 S.E.2d 447, 449 (Ct. App. 2011)). Further, this broad scope of review does not relieve the appellant of the burden of demonstrating the circuit court erred in its findings. Ballard, 399 S.C. at 593, 733 S.E.2d at 109.


         I. Preston's Knowledge of Conflicts of Interest

         First, the County contends the circuit court erred in finding Preston's failure to inform the 2008 Council of Thompson and Ron Wilson's conflicts of interest prior to the Severance Agreement's approval did not constitute a breach of fiduciary duty, fraud, constructive fraud, or negligent misrepresentation.

         A. Breach of Fiduciary Duty

         The County argues Preston-in his capacity as county administrator-owed the highest duty of loyalty and breached this duty by knowingly allowing Thompson and Ron Wilson to introduce, debate, preside over, and cast improper votes in favor of his Severance Agreement. According to the County, Preston had a duty to make these conflicts of interest known because he was still employed as county administrator when he attended the vote affecting his own interest. We disagree.

         "To establish a claim for breach of fiduciary duty, the plaintiff must prove (1) the existence of a fiduciary duty, (2) a breach of that duty owed to the plaintiff by the defendant, and (3) damages proximately resulting from the wrongful conduct of the defendant." RFT Mgmt. Co. v. Tinsley & Adams LLP, 399 S.C. 322, 335-36, 732 S.E.2d 166, 173 (2012).

         "A fiduciary relationship exists when one imposes a special confidence in another, so that the latter, in equity and good conscience, is bound to act in good faith and with due regard to the interests of the one imposing the confidence." Moore v. Moore, 360 S.C. 241, 250, 599 S.E.2d 467, 472 (Ct. App. 2004). "To establish the existence of a fiduciary relationship, the facts and circumstances must indicate the party reposing trust in another has some foundation for believing the one so entrusted will not act in [its] own behalf but in the interest of the party so reposing." Id. at 251, 599 S.E.2d at 472. "The evidence must show the entrusted party actually accepted or induced the confidence placed in [it]." Id.

         In the instant case, the circuit court held Preston owed no fiduciary duty to disclose information about his employment claims to the 2008 Council because Preston and the County had assumed adverse positions by October and November of 2008.

         Although Preston owed the County a fiduciary duty throughout his employment as county administrator, [6] in this particular context, the County had no foundation for believing Preston would not act in his own interest to achieve the best possible settlement of his claims against the County. See generally Moore, 360 S.C. at 251, 599 S.E.2d at 472 (explaining that, for a plaintiff "[t]o establish the existence of a fiduciary relationship, the facts and circumstances must indicate the party reposing trust in another has some foundation for believing the one so entrusted will not act in [its] own behalf but in the interest of the party so reposing"). The parties clearly had opposing interests throughout settlement negotiations and remained adverse to one another during the 2008 Council's vote on the Severance Agreement. Moreover, in preparation of litigation, the County and Preston each retained attorneys to represent their respective interests. In light of these facts and circumstances, we are unable to find any basis upon which the County could have reasonably believed Preston would act on its behalf-instead of representing his own interests-while trying to settle his employment claims against the County. Because the parties were directly adverse to one another, we ...

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